James Lawrence, a 77 year-old Vietnam veteran from Alabama, tells people about his best friend Lt. Don Cornett whenever he gets the chance.
Lawrence and Cornett were roommates at Infantry Officer Basic School, roommates in jump school and on the ship that brought them to Vietnam. They were platoon leaders together in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. They were promoted to 1st Lt. at the same time and both became executive officers on the same day, Lawrence with Delta Co. and Cornett with Charlie.
On November 17, 1965, Lt. Don Cornett along with 154 Troopers from 2/7 Cav were killed in the Ia Drang Valley at a small clearing known as Landing Zone Albany. He died less than 100 yards from where his best friend lay wounded.
“Survivor’s guilt is something that most people who have seen combat, seen friends die, deal with almost daily,” Lawrence said. “Why did I deserve to live? I ask that question every day. I believe it is so I can share our story.”
For Lawrence, telling the story of LZ Albany is not only a way to keep the memory of those who died alive, but also a way to educate others. He has written a book about his experiences and has spoken more than 20 times to veterans organizations, junior high and high school students, and civic groups. In 2016, he joined a panel of Ia Drang survivors at the Maneuver Center of Excellence to share their experiences with both young and seasoned officers and NCOs.
The battle of LZ Albany begins after the battle of LZ X-ray made famous in the movie We Were Soldiers. The Troopers of 2/7 Cav relieved 1/7 CAV on November 16th near the base of the Chu Pong Massif.
“The next morning we were told the B-52s out of Guam were going to bomb the mountains and that we were to move to LZ Albany,” Jim said. “The way it was presented, at least from my perspective, was we were making an administrative move to be airlifted out so we wouldn’t be in the way of the bombers.”
The column was strung out about 550 yards in the open with dense vegetation to their right. After about a three mile march, the front of the column reached the landing zone and the 2/7 Cav commander, Lt. Col. Robert McDade, called his company commanders forward to discuss how to best array their forces in preparation for extraction. They were unaware that two battalions of fresh PAVN soldiers had been camped out along the Ia Drang River on the other side of the landing zone.
The men were still in an administrative maneuver, so when the word to halt came they plopped down where they were. Some of the men who hadn’t slept for close to 48 hours closed their eyes, others smoked or ate. No one pulled security.
“When things started it just erupted,” Jim said. “They (the PAVN) were everywhere on our right flank, even in the trees. We were caught inside of what was essentially an L-shaped ambush.”
Lawrence dropped to the ground to take cover in the tall elephant grass and began to return fire like any other rifleman. He didn’t know that he was the one in charge at that time.
“I realized it when Sgt. Baker, who was less than a foot away from me, was screaming that I was in charge and that I had to do something,” he said. “To do it you’ve got to get up. You’ve got to be in command and as I was on the way up, with my helmet strapped on, a North Vietnamese soldier in a tree put two bullet holes right through my helmet.”
The bullets missed his head by fractions of an inch, but the impact knocked him backward and he couldn’t move from the waist down. He was paralyzed. Later, after he was evacuated the doctors thought his spine was severed, but discovered later that he had a severely bruised spine from the force of the bullets whipping his head back. He would recover after some physical therapy and return to duty in 1966 to finish his tour.
“I thought I was dying and laid there waiting for death to come. When someone shook me and tried to get me moving I was actually offended. ‘Can’t you see I’m dying?’ I thought to myself. Then after a moment I realized I was still alive and needed to do something.”
LZ Albany is essentially two clearings with a large copse of trees in the middle. Alpha company along with most of the command group had setup a perimeter in the trees, but the rest of the battalion was cut off. Jim, even in his paralyzed state, was able to give some direction to his company.
“It looked as if our best bet was to make for the copse of trees in the clearing, so I pointed my men in that direction and said, ‘we need to get over there.’”
Somebody grabbed him under his arms and dragged him toward the trees, but dropped him in the clearing where air support was dropping napalm.
“I can’t even begin to explain it,” he said. “The emotions are so high, the noise is tremendous, the confusion is everywhere; they had overrun us by now. When I was down, men were running past me, swishing the elephant grass and speaking Vietnamese and executing the wounded. Why I wasn’t killed, I couldn’t say.”
He knew he had to get out of the clearing, so he started pulling himself along the ground using only his arms, when someone grabbed him and dragged him the rest of the way into the trees. He spent that night among the dead and wounded. He was medevaced the next morning.
He did not know at the time that his friend, Don Cornett, had died. In a 1967 article for the Saturday Evening Post, former ABC reporter Jack Smith, who was a Pvt. First Class in Charlie Company during the battle, wrote about Lt. Cornett’s last moments.
The XO let out a low moan, and his head sank. I felt a flash of panic. I had been assuming that he would get us out of this. Enlisted men may scoff at officers back in the billets but when the fighting begins, the men automatically become dependent upon them. Now I felt terribly alone.
The XO had been hit in the small of the back. I ripped off his shirt and there it was: a groove to the right of his spine. The bullet was still in there. He was in a great deal of pain, so a rifleman named Wilson and I removed his gear as best we could, and I bandaged his wound. It was not bleeding much on the outside, but he was very close to passing out.
The XO was going fast. He told me his wife’s name was [Sylvia]. He told me that if he didn’t make it, I was to write her and tell her that he loved her. Then he somehow managed to crawl away, saying that he was going to organize the troops. It was his positive decision to do something that reinforced my own will to go on.
The aftermath and lessons learned
The bulk of the fighting lasted about 6 hours and in that time 2/7 Cav lost 155 killed and 124 wounded. The single-bloodiest day in the Vietnam War.
Initially, Lawrence’s thoughts and feelings after he was safe were just moments captured in his mind. It wasn’t until about two weeks later, as he read Stars and Stripes, that it hit him what he had survived.
“Back then Stars and Stripes would carry the casualty reports and I had a red pen and started checking off the names of guys I knew who were listed as KIA. I marked off 65 names and that’s when it really hit me what had happened and it just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t grasp it.”
The late Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, is said to have closed every speech with the phrase, “Hate the war, love the American warrior.” That is the theme of Lawrence’s book and of his talks. For him, war is something that will always be a necessity as long as there is evil in the world, but it is something that is not to be glorified or desired.
He shares this message with the groups he speaks to, but being able to impart some wisdom and knowledge from his experiences to Soldiers is special to him, because for him it is an opportunity to maybe bring a Soldier home safely.
“The main point that I try to get across when I speak to Soldiers, and this is what saved me, is the training,” he said. “The fear factor, when you know someone is within yards of you and is trying to kill you desperately, the fear factor can shut you down. If you yield to it, it will absolutely paralyze you. The training kicks in and can save you.”
Jim also talks about the failure of leadership. From the lack of training and understanding of the situation to the haphazard way they conducted their movement and their halt. He is brutally honest, even with his actions as a leader.
“I’m just as guilty. I was standing back there in the column and the column was stopped. We were taking an administrative break, guys were taking off their packs and lighting cigarettes and the enemy was less than 100 yards on our right flank and deploying and we couldn’t see ‘em or hear ‘em,” he said. “My gut told me, this is wrong, this isn’t right, something’s wrong here. But I remember thinking that I’m just a lieutenant. There’s captains and majors and colonels and I assume they know what they are doing. I didn’t do as I should have.”
Don Cornett’s name 58,000 times
Lawrence’s story is one that he has told so often to so many people that it is fluid and impactful without being rehearsed. It is laced with hard facts, observations, anger, sadness and even some humor.
Although each survivor’s story is unique, they all carry the same lessons. Lessons in leadership, in the importance of training, in courage, in sacrifice and in loss.
“I always end my talk with telling my audience ‘When people go to the wall [Vietnam Veterans Memorial], they see 58,000 names. When I go to the wall, I see Don Cornett’s name 58,000 times.’
He tells his audience this to help them understand. Don Cornett had a wife and a son, a mother and a father and two sisters. The other 58,000 names on that wall are men and women who also had a spouse, or children, they had mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They are all Don Cornett to him, his best friend.
In the same way, the story of his experiences at LZ Albany is a story that could be told by the nearly 400 Troopers of 2/7 Cav who fought and died at LZ Albany, or the 1/7 Cav Troopers at LZ X-ray or the more than 2.6 million US personnel who served in Vietnam. They are stories that not only serve to maintain our connection with history, but also educate us and force us to confront the good and the bad and learn from it.
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